LAST year…the Eagles went 2-4 in the division, and 7-9 overall. The team started out a very hot 3-0, and then went a very tepid 4-9 for the remainder of the season. After a second consecutive 7-9 season, the Birds found themselves in sole possession of the division’s basement.
That was last year. The following is a report on the team looks today, prior to the NFL Draft….
Carson Wentz turned in a statistically “meh” season, throwing 16 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. He did a number of little things (mostly pre-snap) that many rookies don’t usually do. That however won’t mean squat in 2017, because he won’t be a rookie anymore, and no one will be judging him on that sliding scale anymore. (Thank God!)
First the bad news. You’d like to see a rookie’s performances tighten up towards the end of the season, but Wentz’s games were still all over the map. The inconsistency of his performances indicate a QB who is allowing how he plays to be dictated to him by his opposition. Again, that is the bad news.
Now the good news. Dallas games 1&2, NYG games 1&2, Washington games 1&2. In every one of those match-ups Wentz was better in the second meeting. This indicates that he consistently learns from experience, and assimilates what he learns. While his game performances did fluctuate, so did the cast around him, almost weekly. Smooth sailing never made a good sailor, and Wentz started out with some pretty rough chop under him. Regardless, he was still unflappable for the duration. You cannot teach that trait. (Right, Jay Cutler?)
Behind Wentz is returning Eagle Nick Foles. Foles represents a massive upgrade over last year’s #2, Chase Daniel. Many fans unreasonably soured on Foles in 2014, after he came back to Earth after his miracle 2013 season that (I warned) he could never duplicate, after teams figured out the gimmicky system the Eagles ran back then. Foles is now back, and in a more traditional system that actually fits him. He’s not a star, but he’s a legitimate NFL QB who can handle the Philadelphia media, as well as win games (20-16 (.555) as a starter, 16-9 (.640) when not with the Rams). So even if Wentz were to go down, the Eagles season would still have some life in it. (+)
Ryan Mathews is still on the roster today, but that won’t be the case for long. Darren Sproles is a nifty weapon to have, and is a match-up nightmare. The problem is, that his 33 year old, 190 pound body has 12 years of NFL wear and tear on it. He cannot be the bell-cow. Wendell Smallwood was amazingly unremarkable as a RB in his rookie year, turning not one carry, nor catch (in 83 touches) into a 20 yard gain. Terrell Watson was picked up off the street for the last game of the year, and showed enough tough inside running to warrant a long look in OTA’s. The Eagles lack a threat in the backfield that teams can consistently take seriously, let alone fear. Until that changes, the entire Offense will rest on the shoulders of the QB. (-)
Answer: Santa Claus, Superman, and Nelson Agholor. Question: What are three things you’ve learned to not believe in? (Pause for applause.) Dorial Green-Beckham is a tease as a big target with good speed. Whether he can put those pieces together remains to be seen at this point. As for the rest of the receivers, Jordan Matthews is legit and proven, as are new Eagles Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith.
On paper it’s not a scary group, at first. Then you realize that unlike last year, this is a stable of decent-to-good, proven veterans who as a group, constitute a consistent red zone match-up nightmare. Matthews is a 6’3” slot receiver, Jeffery is 6’3”, and Green-Beckham is 6’5”. Smith is a weapon to be deployed between the 20’s, due to his ability to stretch the field. It’s an easy group to overlook. Hell, I almost did it myself. It isn’t at all scary at first glance, but bundled together like this, you can count on this group to cost a lot of defensive coordinators, an awful lot of sleep this year. (+)
For yet another year the Eagles are three deep at this position. Zach Ertz is a very good receiver, but his “improving” work as a run blocker is why the team grossly overpays Brent Celek. Celek still can and will catch the ball (when he gets a chance at it), but he’s mainly used as a blocker in the run game now. Posting 37 catches for 327 yards, most teams would be lucky to have Trey Burton as a back-up TE. Some (ATL, JAX, DEN, MIA, NYG) could have used him as a Starter, but Philadelphia has the luxury of him as their third. This position lacks a classic Jason Witten type (then again so do most teams), but unlike most teams, the Eagles have varied depth that provides them the ability to create mismatches or match-up deficiencies. Rare birds here. (+)
Jason Peters and Lane Johnson are solid at OT, but people seem to be staring at their watches, waiting for Peters to begin falling apart. Depth at OT comes in the form of disappointing Halapoulivaati Vaitai, and swing-men Matt Tobin and Allen Barbre. (Both of whom are better at G than at T.) Former DT/DE Taylor Hart is getting a look at OT. If the Eagles can find themselves an Alejandro Villanueva type, (that they don’t let get away this time), they will look like geniuses. If it doesn’t work, who cares? The guy was DT. At G they have Brandon Brooks, Stefen Wisniewski, and new Eagle Chance Warmack. Issac Seumalo could also be depth at G, provided the Eagles don’t use him to replace C Jason Kelce (as per some rumors). This is a position with a few really good players, but Offensive Line is never about how good each man is. O-Line is about how well those men play together. Until we see who the Eagles put out there together, it’s impossible to say this group has it’s act together yet. Until they prove it… (-)
In a nutshell:
With the exception of a RB, this unit has all the individual pieces, it’s just a matter of whether or not the team can put them together. “Is it soup yet?” is the question. The Offense has the potential to be far more than the sum of it’s parts, but so far without a proven track record from the QB, no real threat at RB, and an Offensive Line that still needs to be defined, there is no way to assume they will get everything ironed out. There is a difference between giving someone the benefit of the doubt, and being flat out biased. Assuming this Offense will “just click” would be flat out bias. If this unit can put the parts together it will not be a surprise. In fact it’s to be expected. But they haven’t done it yet, so…(-)
Between Brandon Graham and new Eagle Chris Long, the team has a pair of relentless pass rushers who also play decent vs the run. What the Eagles don’t have, is anyone that will keep opposing coaches awake at night. Contract constraints will likely to force the Eagles to set politics aside this year, and finally start Vinny Curry (likely over Long). The rotational method employed by Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz keeps players healthier, fresher, and maximizes their abilities. It ensures consistent pressure regardless of who is out there. It even managed to wring good play from a Draft bust who’d been reduced to a situational rusher, in Marcus Smith. Smith not only started reaching QB’s, but he was bringing consistent pressure whenever his feet hit the field. He was a direct beneficiary of no longer playing in a bullshit system. That said, pressure isn’t sacks. The Eagles need sacks. They need sack-fumbles. This position has no star, but it’s stacked with guys who have blue-collar mindsets and good work ethics. While it could stand to be scarier, from top to bottom this position is undeniably solid, with little fall-off between the Starting Wave and the Second Wave. Likely no other team can boast that, and if they draft a stud… (+)
Fletcher Cox is just about as good as it gets in the NFL at this position. While the team lost Bennie Logan to Free Agency, and Beau Allen for (at least) half the season to a pectoral injury, they did pick up Timmy Jernigan in a suh-WEET trade with the Ravens. There is no fall-off in starting quality here. In fact, you could argue that the the Eagles Starting interior is more dangerous in 2017, than it was year ago. I said Starting interior. Depth is not as clear cut.
With Allen sidelined, the Eagles will miss his (and Logan’s) run-plugging. Destiny Vaeao acquitted himself nicely as a rookie, but he, Cox, and Jernigan are more gap penetrators than gap pluggers. None of these players have trouble playing the run, so the Eagles are good here. There are a couple more guys, but they aren’t proven. For depth purposes the Eagles may want to invest in a low budget, wide bodied, late round/post-Draft Free Agent, to eat space. (+)
Nigel Bradham led the team with 102 tackles, grabbed a couple sacks, and made his presence felt in pass coverage. A full service SAM (I told you) who started 16 games is nice to have. Mychal Kendricks in the WILL spot…is less to cheer about. He only started 8 games out of the 15 he played, but those starts were throughout the year, and at no point was he ever actually demoted. More important than number of starts was how ineffective he was during the year. There was no hint of an ability to make big plays, and he was a clear liability in pass coverage. Worse still is the fact that there isn’t really anyone to demote Kendricks in favor of. The reserves seem to be signed with an eye more towards Special Teams than regular downs. (-)
Jordan “Cowboy Killer” Hicks led the team (yes the team) in interceptions with 5 last year. While his 85 tackles look a little lean for a MIKE, his 11 pass break-ups has to scare the hell out of teams. The idea of a MLB collecting 7 picks in 21 career starts is nothing to take lightly. Last year Stephen Tulloch was signed as a back-up on a 1 year deal, 3 days after Joe Walker tore his ACL. Instead of signing Tulloch for another year, the Eagles felt good enough to ride with returning Walker as Hick’s solo understudy for now. This isn’t a flashy position as you don’t hear Hick’s name mentioned much. It’s more like a snake hiding in the grass. Teams often don’t see the danger until it’s too late. (+)
This is a great group. Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are an excellent duo. Notching 3 interceptions apiece in their first year together (while both were learning a new scheme), portends great things for the future. Much of the damage they did was early in the season, before the Corners were exposed and traffic in the middle was abandoned for easier pickings on the outsides. Jaylen Watkins is the primary back-up with the ability to also play the Nickle, though he lacks the speed to line up on the outside. This group lacks a thumper, but they do everything well, and are technically as sound as a dollar. (+)
This position is a total reconstruct. Of last years Starters, Nolan Carroll was allowed to walk via Free Agency and Leodis McKelvin was shown THE DOOR. Neither will be missed. At all. In their place is a gaggle of guys looking for a chance to prove they were overlooked before. Rookie Jalen Mills was feisty in coverage, but also a little to grabby. If the team names him a Starter, don’t be surprised by the move. Ron Brooks was part of the Eagles 4-2 start, but then finished the season on Injured Reserve for the third time in his five year career. Dwayne Gratz was on 3 rosters (JAX, LAR, PHI) in 2016, playing only in 6 games with no starts. The Eagles brought in Patrick Robinson via Free Agency. Robinson is a well traveled underachiever, but former Saint teammate Malcolm Jenkins help convince him to sign here. Aaron Grymes had no business being cut in 2016. Favoritism for being a former Jim Schwartz player, was clearly a factor against him last year. Hopefully this year that mistake won’t be made again. All that being said, on paper this is a VERY weak position. If the Eagles can draft Jesus at CB, they’d better do so. (-)
In a nutshell:
This team could have been better in 2016, but politics (like starting Connor Barwin over Vinny Curry, and blatant favoritism towards players who’s played in Jim Schwartz’s scheme before), figured into lesser performances by the players who benefited, and got to start when they clearly shouldn’t have. If the Eagles put such nonsense behind them, they can be in 2017 what they should have been in 2016.
Last year this team looked like a nightmare waiting to happen, and they were that exactly, until leaky CB play undercut the Defense as a whole. Even with that problem, the Eagles finished 13th vs the pass and 12th in points allowed. The Defense was for real. This year with most of those players returning, or having been upgraded from, they look every bit as imposing again. The caveat is that the CB position is now a known Achilles Heel. Teams will come out targeting it until the Eagles can prove it’s no longer a problem. However, if this team can get even decent CB play this year, bullshit and shenanigans will have to happen for the Eagles to miss the postseason. (+)
Last season Donnie Jones only launched 63 punts over the course of 16 games. That number was 23 fewer than the season before, and also the lowest since Jones became a regular (Starter?) in 2005. This isn’t to say that he was ineffective. In fact, for a second year in a row his average was over 45 yards (45.8) and his net was still over 40 (40.7). He put up a long punt of 72 yards, and only surrendered 202 return yards (12.6 per game) and one touchdown, on just 25 returns (39.6% return rate). Jones was a monster last year. (+)
Caleb Sturgis is coming off of the best Field Goal kicking year of his career so far. Career long of 55. Career attempts of 41. Career makes of 35. Career accuracy of 85.4%. Oh and the average kickoff return allowed was just 18.7 yards. This all sounds great until you realize that from 39 yards and in, he was 24/24 with an accuracy mark of 100%, but beyond 40 yards, he fell to 11/17 (64.7%). That’s a hell of a tumble. He had a 40 yarder blocked, but his remaining misses are 44, 46, 49, 51, and 55. All were outdoors, and 5/6 misses came in November or later. Those are playoff game and playoff game qualifying, kinds of kicks. This is to say that Sturgis serviceable, but he doesn’t seem to have “clutch” in him. I have to grade him based on what he has done, not on the failures he has yet to suffer. Eagles fans just better hope that the season doesn’t come down to his foot. (+)
The Eagles were (no doubt) more dangerous with WR Josh Huff returning kicks last year as he posted 252 yards on 7 returns (36.0), with a 98 yard score. Sadly, he did something stupid and had to be released into the wild, to roam free with other idiots (aka Tampa Bay). This left the Eagles stuck with only Kenjon Barner (9/277/30.8) and Wendell Smallwood (9/261/29.0/1TD) on Kickoff Returns and Darren Sproles (17/224/13.2/1TD) on Punt Returns. Boo hoo, right? All three of those players return in 2017, but you can bet the Eagles will still be on the prowl for more help there. (+)
In a nutshell:
While other teams are scrambling to find and/or keep a good returner, the Eagles have a stable of them. While the Kicker is technically sound, there is an obvious hole in his game. Unfortunately there isn’t even a camp leg on the roster to push him, so it’ll be what it’ll be. The Eagles owe so much to their punting and punt coverage. It has a clockwork way of setting the Defense up to be successful. This is hands down the best Special Teams unit in the division, and it’s not even remotely close. (+)
Like last year, expect this team to be carried by the Defense, as the Offense tries to catch up. That said, this team is so close in so many regards. Much of it is easy to overlook because as football fans we’ve been trained to look for that one standout guy. We star hunt. What this team is (even before the Draft) is cleverly assembled so that the pieces complement each other, and the whole team then becomes much more than the mere sum of it’s parts. There are still a couple of missing pieces, but when this team does click, they won’t be merely good, they will be dominant. Seemingly overnight.